Papa Wheelie Reviews MotoGP’s Grand Prix of Portugal.
The MotoGP paddock returned to Europe last week to a track all the teams know quite well. Jerez has always played a big role in the championship, and has a tradition of being very unpredictable as far as the weather goes. Last weekend was no exception and really sorted out who are the ones in charge. Jorge Lorenzo had a decent enough qualifying to put the Factory Yamaha on pole, trailed by Dani Pedrosa and a hard-charging Nicky Hayden to finish the front row of the grid. Cal Crutchlow continued his strong qualifying to start fourth, followed by Casey Stoner and a struggling Ben Spies.
Torrential downpours spoiled the Moto2 race and put in doubt whether the MotoGP race would be started in the dry or not. Although the the circuit was still damp in areas, the race was declared dry and the teams were able to start the bikes they qualified. Early in the race, the top six riders were regularly changing position and it was hard to tell who would emerge as the eventual challengers for victory. Stoner made bold moves and held on to a slim advantage over Lorenzo to win his first victory at Jerez, and for the year. Lorenzo and Pedrosa claimed the other spots on the podium.
The Estoril race weekend started very similarly to Jerez, as there were many mixed conditions in the practice sessions and a number of riders doing better than others. Spies and Stoner looked strong throughout the practice sessions, with the other regular challengers not far behind. Qualifying showed another blistering performance for the Repsol Hondas, with Stoner taking pole and Pedrosa following up with a strong second place. Crutchlow continued his run of strong performances by putting the Tech 3 Yamaha on the front row, ahead of both Lorenzo and Spies. Valentino Rossi showed his progress by getting the bike closer to the pole time, but was still only good enough for ninth on the grid.
Stoner started the race as if he was shot out of a cannon, immediately pulling out a lead of a second and a half after the first lap of the race. Pedrosa had issues controlling the bike early on with colder tires and was passed by Lorenzo. After finding the much needed confidence that he has been lacking in the early part of the year, Spies looked very racey in the opening laps, but ran off course to avoid running into the struggling Pedrosa. Even though both Pedrosa and Stoner talked of struggling with early race bike chatter (loss of feeling/control of the bike under heavy braking), the Honda really still holds a strong advantage of exiting the corners much smoother and is able to lay down the power earlier.
After settling into a solid race pace, Lorenzo tried his best to stay with Stoner and mount a challenge for the win, but ultimately Stoner just proved way too quick. Stoner held on to his advantage and was able to get his second win in a row, and pull in front of Lorenzo for the championship standings. Pedrosa appeared yet again on the podium to keep his foot in the door for the title, and became one of the few elite riders of the field to have over 100 career podiums(only six other riders have more, with Rossi topping the list at 175).
The 2012 season is only three races old, but has already begun to take shape and show where much of the drama is going to be. As I mentioned in the the pre-season posting, Stoner and Honda remain as the ones to beat. Both Pedrosa and Stoner were critical of the new generation Bridgestone tires that are geared more towards quicker warm-up and safety, and it shows, with them not totally being comfortable on their bikes all the time. If anyone is good at dealing with uncomfortable situations it’s Stoner, and that really is being highlighted by the woes of his former team, Ducati.
With wild rumors of Rossi not seeing out his contract and starting his own factory backed Yamaha team, Ducati has had a dismal start to their campaign. The bike they have run for the last few years (which has claimed the careers of many grand prix riders and only Stoner has been able to win with), has proven again to be a bit too much for the riders to take on. Hayden looks to be in a better position than Rossi for the year, but Rossi didn’t become a nine-time champion for nothing. His recent form shows progress, but he will move on if he’s not at the front and, unless every weekend will be run in mixed conditions, Ducati has a lot of work to do.
All of the Yamahas have made huge strides forward, with both the Factory and Tech 3 teams being very close to each other in qualifying and race pace. Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow are locked in a heated battle for dominance on the team, as well as a shot at being the next Factory Yamaha rider. After such a promising pre-season, Ben Spies really has his work cut out for him to prove that he’s the man for the job. It’s kinda hard to blame the bike, when the rest of his peers are nipping at the podium, and Lorenzo is capable of race wins. Hopefully the Monday Estoril test will help the American sort out the set-up issues that have hurt his confidence on the track.
The season picks back up in two weeks time in France, where the paddock heads to the fabled Le Mans circuit. Although we see some clear contenders for the crown, it’s really too close to call right now and the action has been tighter than in recent years for the grid. One thing is certain. With six possible challengers for race wins, the season has yet to come to a full boil.
Featured image courtesy of: MotoGP.com
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